Two leading Japanese actresses talk about their beginnings in the male-oriented film industry
For as long as film fans can remember, the Tokyo International Film Festival has appointed one Japanese star to be the festival’s muse. This year, in celebration of its 30th anniversary, it took the tradition one step further by selecting four actresses, each an icon of new Japanese cinema, to serve as its muses.
The four actresses were Sakura Ando, whose 2014 film “100 Yen Love” was Japan’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Yu Aoi, who is well-known for her role in Shunji Iwai’s “Hana and Alice”, Hikari Matsushima, who stars in Sion Sono’s “Love Exposure”, and Aoi Miyazaki, who is best known for her role in the film “Nana”.
The ladies joined up to present their past works in a special programme called ‘The Muses of Japanese Cinema Screenings’
“I was surprised but really happy to receive this honour,” said Yu Aoi of her selection. She was just 16 when she made her debut in film, starring in Shunji Iwai’s teenage drama “All About Lily Chou-Chou” but it was her portrayal of Alice in Iwai’s 2004 hit “Hana and Alice” that shot her to fame. The festival saw Aoi reuniting with her costar Anne Suzuki and director Iwai in presenting the teen romance.
“For Shunji Iwai, I was still a child when I was shooting his film,” said the 31-year-old with a smile. “When we were doing a shot from a long way away, I would have an earphone in my ear, and he would use the transceiver to direct me.”
Aoi became a big star after “Hana and Alice” and was soon working with other big name directors, among them Lee Sang-Il in “Hula Girls”, which won many awards in its home country and was released in Thailand in 2006. She also appeared in Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Mushishi” (2007), Yoji Yamada’s “About Her Brother” (2010), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Journey to the Shore” (2015), Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Over The Fence” (2016) and Daigo Matsui’s “Japanese Girls Never Die”.
And with almost two decades of experience to her credit, Aoi has learned how to work with each director.
“Lee Sang-Il is a kind of director who really pushes the actor hard, pushing and pushing and pushing until I can’t really speak anymore and my ego is no longer at the forefront. Only after he gets all the extra things he wants from me, will he say that it’s okay. Director Nobuhiro Yamashita has a very different style. Unlike Lee Sang-Il who pushes the actors with words, Yamashita doesn’t say much. Because of that, all the actors worry that they aren’t doing what he wants but that anxiety goes away when he says it is okay.”
Just like in other parts of the world, females are very much in the minority in the Japanese film industry.
“In the film world, there are more men than women and the more I perform, the more like a man I feel inside. That might sound strange as I always play a feminine character, but deep inside, I feel that I am a man.”
Very early in her career, Aoi starred in Akihiko Shiota’s “Harmful Insect”, which featured Aoi Miyazaki in the lead role. The film was presented at Venice Film Festival in 2002 and brought fame to Miyazaki though it wasn’t until “Nana”, based on a manga, that she become known all over Asia.
Miyazaki presented her first feature film “Eureka” at the festival, in which she stars with her real-life brother Masaru and actor Koji Yakusho. The film by Shinji Aoyama, which was screened in competition at Cannes Film Festival in 2000, runs for 218 minutes and is shot almost entirely in sepia tones.
“I was in 14 years old at that time,” Miyazaki says. “I remember coming to the casting for ‘Eureka’ and going into the meeting room. It was first time I had been away from my parents for a whole month and among a group of adults. It was fun. I went with my brother, Koji and the director to a bar where we ate cabbage salad. I have many memories like that.”
Since then Miyazaki has appeared in almost 50 films and one of most recent, Lee SangIl’s “Rage” which was screened at Toronto International Film Festival in 2015 was also shown in the special programme of Tokyo International Film Festival this year. In the film, Miyazaki plays a young woman dating a mysterious boy who could be a serial killer.
“I am turning 32, but age is just a number. I don’t think much about what’s happening next, and I can’t turn back time. I am thinking about what I can do in my thirties. Recently I’ve been thinking that I want to do more challenging things or do something that I haven’t done before,” says the young actress as she looks ahead to her career.
With the screening of a mammoth 231 films in total, and the attendance of 60,000 film fans during 10 days, the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival wrapped at the weekend after once again showing why it is such a great platform for presenting Japanese and world cinema.